CHICAGO (Reuters Life!) - When people ask Jennifer Lockhart what she did this summer, the 37-year-old will have a story that knocks them dead.
Lockhart, a radiology technician by trade, spent a particularly warm, sunny week in August surrounded by human cadavers inside a lab at the University of Indiana (UI) campus here.
A fan built into the perforated stainless steel tables where the cadavers were laid quietly pulled air away from the bodies and out of the building.
Even so, the subtle, sweet smell of phenol and other powerful chemical preservatives permeated the room where Lockhart worked, carefully stripping the skin and fat from the body in front of her.
Sound like a ghoulish nightmare? Not to Lockhart and the nearly four dozen others who participated in an unusual program that enlists volunteers to prep the cadavers for the university’s incoming class of medical students.
“I told my boyfriend when I got up this morning that this is the day I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” Lockhart said between sessions with her cadaver, a 106-year-old female who died of heart disease.
“In my profession, we don’t do anything like this.”
The volunteers get no pay or college credit for their work, despite the risks. These range from possible exposure to potentially hazardous biowaste to guaranteed contact with sights, sounds and smells that most people would find ghastly.
Yet the summer program, now in its 11th year, received applications from five times as many people as it had spots to fill this year, with successful volunteers hailing from as far away as Poland, Spain and Malaysia.
Shanthi Ganabadi, a 42-year-old veterinarian professor from Selangor, the Malaysian state that surrounds Kuala Lumpur, was one of them.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Ganabadi said after the first day of the two-day, hands-on part of the week-long program. “We’ve done the de-skinning and we’ve cleaned up and identified some of the muscles.”
The program is the brainchild of Ernest Talarico, the assistant director of medical education at the IU Gary and the director of its anatomy and embryology curriculum.
The school’s gross anatomy class -- where doctors-in-training get an up-close look at the organs they will grapple with the rest of their lives -- is an abbreviated affair, far shorter than most other medical schools.
So prepping the cadavers, a process known as “prosection” that is normally done by the students themselves, always needed to be done well before school started.
In the past, that meant it was Talarico’s job to do it, one that took up weeks of his time each summer.
Then Talarico, a stocky, 49-year-old with an impish smile, had an idea.
Taking a page from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, he designed a program -- the International Human Cadaver Prosection Program -- that invites lay people to come do the drudge work for him.
“Sure it was difficult to get everything done and prepped,” he said. “But at the same time, I wanted to create a program that was also educational and would draw people in.”
Volunteers have been vying for the slots ever since, paying $15 just to apply and then covering their travel expenses to the United States, as well as room and board, if they are selected.
This year’s crop of students was drawn rather heavily from the medical field and allied professions. But past classes have included lawyers, salespeople, teachers and even an Indian chief. What they have in common, Talarico said, is a curiosity about human anatomy -- and a strong stomach.
“The thing that surprised me was how hard it was to remove the skin,” Lockhart said. “And the amount of fat on the body was amazing -- and our donor was skinny and frail.” She said that cutting through the cadaver’s skin felt a little like carving a pumpkin into a jack-‘o-lantern.
Occasionally, a volunteer will feel a little light-headed and have to leave the room for a few minutes.
“There’s no shame in that,” Talarico said.
But so far, no one has shown up and then walked away unable to do the work.
Although Lockhart said she will apply to participate in the program again next year, she admitted that the experience had soured her -- at least temporarily -- on one thing.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to eat chicken for a long time,” she said. “As we were cutting through the skin and fat, it just kept reminded me of raw chicken.”
Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Patricia Reaney